COVID, Cancel Culture And Crisis At The Paris Opera

A pillar of French culture, the Paris Opera is struggling to survive both the pandemic and criticism of its lack of diversity. Will such an important institution be able to withstand the changes of time?

The Paris Opera found itself in the middle of a hot controversy about the lack of diversity of its dancers and singers
The Paris Opera found itself in the middle of a hot controversy about the lack of diversity of its dancers and singers
Michel Guerrin

PARIS — Cultural institutions in France are in chaos, resigned to waiting for the vaccine before they can fully operate again. But for one of them, the drama doesn't end there. The Paris Opera will spend 2021 having a long, hard look at the question of identity after it found itself in the middle of a hot controversy about the lack of diversity of its dancers and singers.

The problems started from a long-form investigation of M, the magazine supplement of Le Monde, published on December 26th. When M journalist Elise Karlin met the Paris Opera's current director, Alexander Neef, and discussed three famous Rudolf Nureyev ballets — La Bayadère, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker — he confessed to her that "some of our famous acts will definitely disappear from the repertoire." Which ones? Neef didn't clarify but the link to Nureyev, a world-famous dancer and former director of the Paris Opera who died in 1993, was clear. His choreographies embody a world of white ballet, and La Bayadère even includes blackface in "Danse des négrillons."

Social media went haywire, and both the conservative website Valeurs Actuelles ("current values') and the far-right politician Marine Le Pen condemned the move, denouncing that Nureyev was being censored. Worried voices could be heard even within the opera house, where the Russian ballet dancer is a pillar.

In their way, these performers are on the front line in France.

Making works "disappear" has echoes of what some call Cancel Culture, an increasingly popular American form of ostracism that seeks to erase artists and works that symbolize white male domination and the oppression of minorities. And Alexander Neef, who was the Canadian Opera Company director from 2008 to 2020, has been immersed in North American culture for more than a decade.

Confronted with the implications of his own words, the Paris Opera leader was forced to U-turn, saying there had been an "unfortunate juxtaposition" of quotes in the M article. It wasn't a question of removing Nureyev's ballets from the repertoire, he said. Rather, he was looking to forgo "lyrical pieces out of step with the times." Neef, however, had re-read his quotes before the article was originally published, and not only did he approve the publication of the piece — the Paris Opera even tweeted the article. The piece was motivated by an upcoming report on diversity in the opera and touched on ballet and Nureyev. It had no interest in exploring the relevance of obscure outdated operas.

The controversy comes as this historic French cultural institution is almost bankrupt due to repeated strikes and the health crisis. It is currently waiting for another report, this time about its economic survival.

The two aspects – diversity and financial stability – are intertwined but also opposites in a subtle game. For years, the Paris Opera has opened its ballet repertoire to contemporary pieces, but it is structured around classic style and its dance school, which acts as its talent pool. Hence its reputation for excellence and conservatism, where hard work and a hierarchy of talent can make the army look like a playground.

Inside the opéra— Photo: Caro Gorille

This reputation has echoes in the opera's audience, not exactly the youngest, most diverse or revolutionary people on earth. So, it's unthinkable that the beleaguered institution cut ties with the classic pieces that feed its coffers. Besides, La Bayadère has been available without blackface since mid-December via the Opera's paid streaming platform. At the same time, this type of show highlights how the Opera's lack of diversity goes further than that of other cultural venues with similar struggles. All the more so as urban dances that are in step with our era and are often Black-produced are being shown elsewhere.

The conundrum: in an uncertain and complex move, Opera and ballet need to diversify their repertoires to diversify their performers and their public. But in doing so, they cannot dismantle their identity. Yet a diverse repertoire is not the main draw of their program or their dance schools. To make matters more complicated, there are still some families who aren't always thrilled that their son wants to become a dancer.

France is certainly slowly beginning to go down the American road.

The question of a repertoire that includes pieces that are hurtful to minorities is a delicate one. Should they contextualize (give public warnings), take out blackface and the whitening of black bodies, or simply entirely remove these pieces? The Paris Opera is lucky, so to speak, that their non-white dancers and singers are simply asking for recognition and equity, and not to upend the table or censure any classic works.

In their way, these performers are on the front line in France. Here, diversity wins in culture by first fighting the injustices inflicted on creators, performers and audiences. The American approach is far more brutal: It attacks the works themselves. This leads to the destruction of statues, denouncing cultural appropriation and "canceling" artists who offend minorities, replacing universalism with cultural compartmentalization: Black spaces for Blacks, etc. Artists are promoted less for their art than their identity and sociopolitical commitments.

France isn't there yet. Freedom of expression is stronger here, our universalism resists for better or for worse, and we don't have an equivalent protest portal as well established as Black Lives Matter.

But France is certainly slowly beginning to go down the American road, which translates into galloping self-censorship by artists and programmers to pre-empt and avoid trouble and the promotion of unchallenging feel-good pieces. As the first leader of a major French cultural institution to publicly use the verb "to cancel" in the context of diversity, Alexandre Neef has now signed up for this debate — voluntarily or not.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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